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Cutting Lifelines: How Humanitarian Aid Reductions Threaten Survival in Northwest Syria

As humanitarian needs rise in northwestern Syria, international support is dwindling with devastating consequences for the population.

Earlier this month, storms and flash floods wreaked havoc in the northwest of Syria, affecting 12,000 people, according to United Nations (UN) reports. The severe weather destroyed homes, temporary shelters for internally displaced persons (IDPs), and vital agricultural resources. This natural disaster only exacerbates the already dire humanitarian crisis across the country, where the number of people needing assistance rose by 1.4 million in 2024, bringing the total to 16.7 million, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

Despite these heightened needs, humanitarian funding for Syria has declined in recent years due to a combination of western donor fatigue and the emergence of other global conflicts, in particular, those in Ukraine and Gaza. These financial constraints prompted the UN World Food Program (WFP) to terminate its primary aid initiative across Syria, effective from January 2024, citing the “global humanitarian funding crunch.” This decision severed a vital lifeline for over 3 million beneficiaries who rely on the program’s essential food distributions to combat malnutrition.

The impact of these cuts is magnified by the country’s worsening economic crisis and escalating poverty stemming from 13 years of conflict that has decimated infrastructure and triggered widespread displacement. As a consequence, 90 percent of Syrians currently live below the poverty line, according to UN estimates

While the WFP’s decision impacts the whole country, the repercussions of the program’s cuts are particularly acute in northwest Syria. The region is home to over 3 million IDPs living in over 1,500 camps. The level of violence in the region also stands as the highest in the country. In these camps, women and children constitute nearly 80 percent of WFP aid recipients, underscoring the heightened vulnerability of this demographic to aid cuts. This is particularly concerning for children, who no longer have access to the nutritional supplements previously distributed with food baskets which contain essential items like bread, rice, sugar, lentils, and vegetable oil for each family.

At the same time, food assistance offered a small but valuable window of economic opportunity amid a national economic crisis. IDPs, among others, commonly sold part of their food baskets to pay for other necessities, the loss of which therefore diminishes IDP coping mechanisms. Food cuts will also decelerate the economic wheel in northern Syria, as the food baskets previously provided employment for many workers, including distributors, transport companies, packaging firms, and others.

The impact of diminishing humanitarian aid is consequently far-reaching, exacerbating the country’s humanitarian and financial challenges, increasing the risk of famine, and driving greater numbers to consider leaving the country. 

Cuts amidst rising humanitarian needs

The WFP’s decision to reduce aid did not come as a complete surprise. As global humanitarian needs reach unprecedented levels, the world’s attention on Syria has diminished amid competing needs born out of other global conflicts, growing donor fatigue, and humanitarian agencies’ shrinking budgets. Consequently, only 33 percent of the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria, designed by OCHA alongside various other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, was funded by the year’s end, a notable decrease from the already low 52 percent funding achieved in the previous year.

In response, the WFP gradually reduced aid to Syria including decreasing the number of beneficiaries. The funding shortfall also jeopardized operations where the WFP operates. However, as aid has dwindled, the humanitarian needs prompted by the Syrian crisis have grown.

As global humanitarian needs reach unprecedented levels, the world’s attention on Syria has diminished amid competing needs born out of other global conflicts, growing donor fatigue, and humanitarian agencies’ shrinking budgets

The 2024 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria indicates that available assistance will shift to prioritize the most urgent needs in the country. The plan aims to transition humanitarian approaches from broad-scale general assistance to smaller, more targeted interventions supporting families affected by emergencies and natural disasters. However, specific details regarding the distribution plan, selection mechanisms, and the number of beneficiaries remain unknown.

The growing humanitarian needs in Syria have seen numerous humanitarian actors operating throughout the country, including various UN agencies and local and international NGOs. They play a crucial role addressing the pressing needs of millions of vulnerable individuals affected by the country’s conflict and ensuing displacement. Alongside providing food baskets and financial support, humanitarian actors deliver essential services such as healthcare, water, sanitation, and hygiene, as well as protection, shelter, and education. They also distribute basic household items like blankets, clothes, and kitchen sets to alleviate the suffering of those impacted by the crisis.

However, the WFP is not alone in its funding challenges, and other humanitarian organizations working inside the country have also been forced to reduce the scale of their operations.

Northwest Syria’s crisis

Despite a decline in active conflict in Syria, the nation’s economic prospects have continued to worsen, largely due to the Syrian regime’s ineffective policies and refusal to engage in a political settlement to resolve the conflict. The economic crisis is particularly severe in the northwest of the country, an opposition-held enclave where over three-quarters of the population resides in camps and informal sites. Home to over 4.5 million people, this region has become a refuge for those displaced by violence and territorial expansion, mainly at the hands of the Syrian regime.

The devastating earthquake in February 2023 exacerbated the already precarious situation in the region, damaging over ten thousand buildings in the region, whilst deepening poverty and displacement among the local population.

Today, over 4 million individuals in the northwest require immediate humanitarian assistance

Today, over 4 million individuals in the northwest require immediate humanitarian assistance. Over 90 percent concurrently face food insecurity. The risk of malnutrition, and famine, is particularly high amongst children. Just under a quarter of children in northwest Syria suffer from growth impairments resulting from malnutrition, according to UN estimates. Health workers anticipate these figures to escalate significantly post the cessation of food aid, potentially reaching 50 to 75 percent of affected children.

The repercussions of cutting food aid also lead families to adopt negative coping mechanisms like drastic reductions in daily food intake, heightened school dropouts, and child labor.

For humanitarian organizations, delivering essential aid to the areas affected is additionally challenging due to the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s extensive control over northwest Syria. Numerous international governments label the group as a terrorist organization. As a result, their presence significantly complicates humanitarian operations and constrains the flow of funding to communities in the region.

Coping constraints 

Filling the void left by vanishing aid will be extremely challenging amid the surge of poverty and unemployment. In May 2024, the cost of a standard food basket in Idlib for a family of five reached over 950,000 Syrian pounds (SYP), an 87 percent increase from the previous year. Local currency devaluation, coupled with rampant inflation, means that purchasing power has collapsed and basic goods are now virtually unaffordable.

Residents of the camps typically engage in irregular jobs, earning a daily wage of between 55 and 95 Turkish Lira (the equivalent to approximately 35,000-45,000 SYP, or USD $7-9). Purchasing the food basket previously provided by WFP, leaves little left over to cover other basic necessities such as bread, medication, transportation, clothes, fuel, rent, and vegetables. The cuts in aid will also impact the prices of essential items in the markets, previously included in the basket, leading to a surge in prices due to increased demands, especially since most of these commodities are imported. 

Securing this small salary, however, is exceedingly challenging due to the scarcity of job opportunities. Unemployment stood at a staggering 85 percent in northwestern Syria in 2022. As a consequence of high unemployment, coupled with both rampant inflation and currency devaluation, nearly half of households in northwest Syria reported the loss of job or unemployment as a further barrier to meeting basic needs, according to OCHA. The situation becomes even more challenging for those lacking healthy breadwinners.

Escalating exodus

The repercussions of food cuts extend beyond the borders of Syria. The mounting financial and security challenges, coupled with limited job opportunities, are likely to propel more Syrians, particularly those in northwest Syria, to seek better living conditions abroad.

Even before these significant cuts, irregular migration had been on the rise in recent years. The number of Syrians crossing into the European Union roughly doubled in 2022, soaring to 94,472, according to Frontex, Europe’s border management agency. Meanwhile, asylum applications from Syria in the first half of 2023 surpassed any comparable period since the refugee crisis of 2015 to 2016. In neighboring Lebanon, Syrians fleeing across the border face discrimination and harassment, high poverty levels, and now potential deportation back to Syria. 

As the imminent threat of famine looms over northwest Syria, there is a critical need for increased aid. However, donors should also consider a strategic transition from emergency humanitarian assistance to initiatives that foster economic recovery and enhance living conditions. While humanitarian aid is indispensable during emergencies, in prolonged conflicts such as Syria’s, over-reliance on such aid has led to an unsustainable dependency on humanitarian assistance which, when removed without a safety net, has now proven perilous.

Without a pivot toward a more sustainable support model, the risk of exacerbating the suffering of Syrians remains high, compelling them to embark on dangerous journeys in search of safer, more viable alternatives.

Dr. Haid Haid is a columnist and a Senior Consulting Research Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Program.


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